About 18,000 people — including members of Congress, all their aides, presidential appointees and even the president and vice president — would lose the employer-provided health insurance under a condition that Republicans proposed for averting a government shutdown.
The Democratic-controlled Senate rejected the measure Monday night, an hour after the House passed it.
The government pays roughly three-fourths of federal workers' health insurance premiums. House Republicans would end that contribution by amending the Senate's temporary spending bill. For many federal employees, that would mean a pay cut of up to $11,000. The Congressional Budget Office estimates the GOP's proposal would save the government about $1 billion over a decade.
"This is a matter of funding the government and providing fairness to the American people," said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. "Why wouldn't members of Congress vote for it?"
It wasn't clear Boehner's own GOP caucus was united on the amendment. "There's not complete unanimity in there," said one supporter of the plan, Rep. Scott Rigell, R-Va.
Even before the House took this new whack at the Affordable Care Act, Senate Democrats rejected it as a condition for keeping the government in operating funds past midnight Monday. Majority Leader Harry Reid said a government shutdown could be avoided only if the GOP-controlled House passed a budget "clean" of any such amendments. Later in the day, President Barack Obama issued a veto threat, calling the amendment the product of a "narrow ideological agenda (that) threatens the nation's economy."
"They're spinning their wheels," Reid told reporters as the clock ticked toward midnight. "We are not going to change Obamacare."
The amendment had supporters among Republican members of the Senate, where Sen. David Vitter, R-La., tried earlier this month to make it part of an energy bill. Rather than give him a vote on the question, Reid dropped consideration of the bill.
Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., said ending the government's contribution to government officials who hold their jobs through politics is about making Washington a less privileged place.
"This is a very tough thing to vote against," DeSantis said. "It may mean you're facing a primary. This moves numbers. People do not like this in the country."
The current government contribution toward health insurance premiums for members and their staffs is in line with payments from many private employers and is the same premium contribution that other federal employees get. During the legislative fight over Obamacare, Democrats repeatedly said their goal was to offer coverage to all Americans that was comparable to the coverage and choices that members of Congress receive.
"This is not a radical idea; 150 million Americans have exactly the same arrangement," Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., said Monday night. "They get their health insurance through their work and their employer pays a portion of the health insurance premium."
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, then succeeded in adding a measure to Obama's health care bill three years ago requiring members of Congress and employees in their offices to leave the Federal Employee Health Benefits program and start buying their insurance through the state exchanges that open Tuesday under the Obamacare law.
The new exchanges offering various tiers of coverage through private insurance companies were intended for the millions of Americans who don't get medical insurance through their employers. The new health care law provides tax breaks for low- and middle-income insurance buyers, but most members of Congress and presidential appointees as well as thousands of employees in Congress have higher incomes that disqualify them for the tax subsidies. Companies with fewer than 50 workers also can shop for employee health care insurance on the new exchanges.
The potential impact of the provision has been a huge source of anxiety for congressional staffers accustomed to getting their health insurance just like other government employees through the federal benefits program.
Last month, the government's Office of Personnel Management ruled that members of Congress and their aides switching to the Obamacare exchanges would still qualify for the 75 percent premium match. The GOP measure overturns that decision while also ending the employer match for Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Cabinet members and other presidential appointees.
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